STATE Rep. David Dank reheated an old chestnut recently when he marveled at the waste evident in Oklahoma state government. Dank, R-Oklahoma City, made particular mention of common education and the county commissioner system.
“There are 515 school districts,” Dank said. “There are 231 county commissioner districts, each with its own road maintenance barn, road building equipment and crew. That’s absurd.”
He’s right. It’s also an arrangement that’s apparently here to stay. Trying to change it requires the sort of political courage that’s in short supply at the Capitol. Few lawmakers are willing to take the heat that comes with the slightest suggestion that changes be made.
If you talk about reducing the number of school districts through consolidation, superintendents, teachers and community leaders fire off emails or grab the phone or make a beeline to NE 23 and Lincoln to protest. We heard from a number of people in Panola not long ago who took issue with our suggestion that consolidating the tiny school district with either of two districts just a few miles away might better serve Panola’s students. Panola faces a potential forced consolidation by the state, due to financial issues.
Politicians interested in winning the next election learn quickly not to mention consolidation as a way to get common ed’s dollars to stretch a little further. They also learn to leave county government alone. Yet every county, regardless of population, has three commissioners with their own maintenance barns and road equipment. And nearly all counties have their own jail.
The latter is especially ridiculous in this day and time. Regional jails serving two or three counties are certainly feasible, particularly in less-populated areas. But each of the current jails serves as an employment center; thus, they’re guarded passionately.
Keeping the lights on at some of those jails requires a continued flow of inmates from the state Department of Corrections. This has become abundantly clear in recent months as the new DOC director, Robert Patton, has tried to reduce the number of state inmates in county jails. The move triggered howls of protest from sheriffs saying they’ve built into their budgets the money the state pays them to hold inmates.
As the sheriff in Jackson County noted, “We’ve always depended on having 30 to 40 people” waiting for transport to state prisons. About $450,000 of his $2.2 million annual budget comes from DOC reimbursements, he told The Oklahoman’s Graham Lee Brewer. Eliminating this could mean eliminating deputy positions.
Patton is concerned with stretching his own budget. He answers to the state Board of Corrections, not to voters. Most lawmakers, who are hired by the electorate, spend their time in survival mode. One good way to survive is to avoid heavy lifting.
So don’t expect any significant gains to be made any time soon, for example, on public pension reform, even if this is a vitally important issue. The Republican-controlled Legislature approved a bill this session placing future (but not current) state employees in a 401(k)-style retirement plan. The change relates to those covered by the Oklahoma Public Employees Retirement System. Lawmakers deserve credit for approving it.
But OPERS is the best-funded of the state’s six retirement systems. The worst-funded has an $8 billion unfunded liability. It’s the one that covers public school teachers — arguably the most powerful and vocal special interest group in the state.
Given that, legislators likely will leave not-so-well enough alone. In state politics, inertia trumps reform.